There are more ways than ever of pursuing a career in the technology sector.
Eighty-two thousand. That's the number of new skilled technicians and engineers that Semta, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, says the UK's engineering and advanced manufacturing sector needs to recruit during the next three years just to replace those who will be retiring. On top of this, Semta estimates that 363,000 of the technical workforce need to refresh and acquire additional skills if the businesses they work for are going to be able to compete globally.
In its 2011 survey of employers, the CBI found that more than two-thirds of firms in the science, high-tech and IT sectors are not confident there will be enough people available to fill their high-skilled jobs, up from 59 per cent in 2008.
At the same time, there is growing concern about a lack of awareness of the different ways of pursuing a career in engineering that exist today. The profile of apprenticeships, for example, will get a valuable boost from National Apprenticeship Week, which this year runs from 11 to 15 March. But while big companies are inundated with applications for apprenticeships, fewer than one in five firms across the whole sector are currently running schemes.
Britain needs a vibrant engineering sector to underpin economic growth, build capacity to compete in an expanding global market, and devise ways of coping with the mounting pressure on the world's resources. Engineering skills are clearly vital to deliver growth, as well as rebalancing the economy to be less reliant on a few sectors and become more broad-based across a range of industries.
Engineering and advanced manufacturing is a broad sector that spans industries from marine to space, from automotive to electronics. The people capable of contributing to this innovative and technologically demanding industry in the future will have to be recruited from a range of educational backgrounds. There has to be an increase in the number of young people, especially girls, joining the sector, following a route that suits their preferences and aptitudes, whether that is earning while learning, full-time study or some combination.
In May 2011, Semta joined up with the National Apprenticeship Service to launch the Apprentice Ambition, an initiative that aims to double the number of advanced and higher-level apprentices by 2016. Semta was delighted to announce in January 2013 that, having exceeded the first full-year target of 8,800 by 24 per cent, both organisations have renewed their commitment to reaching the overall target of 16,000.
Companies are seeking diverse ways to recruit and develop the skills of their workforces. As an employer-led body, Semta works with industry to continually update apprenticeship frameworks so they meet both the needs of businesses operating in dynamic global markets and the increasing pace of technology change. For example, successful completion of the recently-launched higher apprenticeship in advanced manufacturing at level 6 – equivalent to Bachelor's degree level – can lead, through partnership with professional organisations such as IET, to registration as an incorporated engineer. More than 400 people have already signed up for the new framework, which covers job roles across the marine, aerospace, nuclear, automotive, R&D, maintenance, electrical/electronics and wind energy sectors.
The Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme (ASAS), which was launched last year, is the first framework to offer flexible access to individual Master's level modules in key technology areas from across a network of top UK universities. Overseen by an employer board to ensure the content meets specific business needs and skills gaps, it enables firms to invest in developing their workforce in an efficient, flexible manner. Semta works with them to deliver a flexible modular programme in technologies that have been identified as critical to growth and productivity in UK advanced manufacturing companies.
These new frameworks are just two of the measures that are giving young people greater choice about a career path in engineering. But we also need to encourage more employers to participate in apprenticeship schemes. Only 18 per cent of employers in the sector have or offer apprenticeships. The demand is there; the apprenticeship schemes of several large UK engineering companies receive 20 applications for each place. Recognising the importance of engineering skills to the success of their business, some of these large companies are, with government support, training additional apprentices for their supply-chain companies.
The public and private sector are working together to ensure the engineering skills system develops and adapts to the demands of businesses to keep the UK at the forefront of engineering and advanced manufacturing.
Dolores Byrne is a Semta board member and a former IET trustee and vice-president